Friday, October 5, 2012

Federal judge dismisses Oglala Sioux suit against beer sellers

Timothy Williams reports in the New York Times today that the Oglala Sioux are considering lifting their long-time ban on alcohol in light of a federal court's dismissal this week of a $500 million lawsuit against beer distributors and beer sellers in Whiteclay, Nebraska. Whiteclay is just across the state line from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and four stores in the small Nebraska town, which has a population of just 10, sell 13,000 cans of beer and malt liquor each day. It is a notorious fact that most of that alcohol winds up on the Pine Ridge reservation, consumed by the Oglala Sioux. Read earlier posts about the matter here, here and here.

Here is an excerpt from the Lincoln Journal Star's coverage of the suit and its dismissal:
A federal judge in Nebraska threw out the case this week, ruling that his court didn't have jurisdiction to address the allegations.
The beer companies had argued that none of the tribe's claims were allowed under federal law, but Tom White, the Omaha-based attorney for the tribe, said the plaintiffs filed the suit in federal court "because the claim raised a federal issue and most cases involving sovereign Indian country are handled at that level." White said that the tribe may re-file the suit in state court, a move the federal judge suggested. White said:
The federal court was very careful not to toss out any of the causes of action, even though that's what the defendants really wanted. ... That's very encouraging to us.
In his report for the NYT, Williams quotes Judge John M. Gerrard of the federal district court for Nebraska:
[There is] little question that alcohol sold in Whiteclay contributes significantly to tragic conditions on the reservation .... And it may well be that the defendants could or should, do more to try and improve those conditions of members of the tribe. But that is not the same as saying that a federal court has jurisdiction to order them to do so.
In other American Indian news, Williams also reported this week that the Sioux are desperately working to raise $9 million to buy nearly 2,000 acres of sacred Sioux land in the Black Hills region of South Dakota. The land, which is known to the Lakota as Pe Sla, but otherwise as the Reynolds Prairie Ranch, was taken from the Sioux in 1876. The Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 had granted the land to the Sioux, but the U.S. back-pedalled on that commitment when gold was discovered there. The land was later homesteaded by the ancestors of the current owners, the Reynolds. When the Reynolds put the land up for sale earlier this year, the Sioux made the winning bid and a downpayment of $900,000. Now, however, the Sioux are struggling to complete the purchase by the Nov. 1 deadline.

Louis Wayne Boyd, treasurer of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, explained:
This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to get some land back that is very, very dear to us. Most of the tribes want to do something, but it's very difficult for them to raise any money, especially of this magnitude.
In 1979, the U.S. Court of Claims wrote of the federal government's misdeeds against the Sioux that "a more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealing will never, in all probability, be found in our history." The Supreme Court then ruled in 1980 that the Sioux had not been adequately compensated for the land, and it ordered the government to pay the Sioux. The Sioux never accepted that money, saying that to do so would be to sell their mountians. They have insisted on the return of the Black Hills to their tribal authority. Meanwhile, the payment the U.S. government offered then has been accumulating interest and is now valued at $800 million. Yet the Sioux will not agree to use those funds to buy the sacred land.

Tom Poor Bear, vice president of the Oglala Lakota Tribe in South Dakota explained the resistance with an analogy:
It's like someone stealing my car and I have to pay to get it back.

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